On Fringe, intelligence directly correlates to evil

Fringe has always explored the notion of what happens when smart people Go Too Far, through the cautionary tales of Walter Bishop and countless other mad scientists. But with this latest storyline, the show actually seems to be suggesting that being smart is almost inevitably a path to iniquity. Which... huh.

Spoilers ahead...

So I don't really have that much to say about last night's Fringe. It was basically just continuing the "Bishops have stuff in their brains" storylines that the previous week had kicked into gear. In particular:


1) Peter is turning into a kind of Observer, which is making him kind of a jerk
We already saw last week that Peter's impromptu Observer brain implant allowed him to fight and teleport like an Observer — and now he can predict stuff like an Observer, too. Even the actions of actual Observers. Peter figures out the movements of some of Windmark's lieutenants, and ropes Anil into helping him swap one Observer's briefcase, so he can inflict face-melting death on a whole bunch of key Observers at once. Anil lets Peter down, but Peter is able to recover and the face-melting is on.

(Every time Anil comes on the screen, I give a little astonished whoop that he's still alive, given how marked for death he is, as the only expendable character left. Or maybe that makes him safe, until the finale?)

On Fringe, intelligence directly correlates to evil

Olivia notices that Peter is being shifty and not sleeping and going off on his own all the time with weak-ass explanations, and thinks he's just pulling away from her in the wake of Etta's death — until she sees Peter's massive transparent board of Observer Observation and learns the truth. And then Peter starts plotting to kill Windmark himself, but the mental effort makes some of Peter's hair fall out. Noooo! Not the hair!

The urgency of the Peter storyline is slightly dampened by the fact that we saw a preview for the next episode at the end of this one — and it included Walter saying that soon the changes to Peter's brain would be irreversible. Which means they're not irreversible yet, and they probably will be reversed. (It's a law of television that reversible things tend to get reversed.)

2) Walter is suffering from extreme hubris and is turning back into the arrogant man he used to be.

On Fringe, intelligence directly correlates to evil

We know this, because Walter tells us (and Nina) several times. There are one or two scenes of Walter being kind of a jerkwad, but there are also multiple scenes where it's spelled out that Walter is reverting to his old "playing God" self. Walter asked William Bell to cut out some slices of his brain to hide the secret of traveling between universes, but also because he worried he was becoming too much of a megalomaniac, and he wanted to remove the parts of his brain that made him push the limits of science and morality and stuff. But after Walter's brain was damaged by being frozen in amber for 20 years, Simon and Etta put those brain snippets back in, and now he's turning evil-ish again.

On Fringe, intelligence directly correlates to evil

I would love to know what a neuroscientist thinks of this storyline. For one thing, there's the idea that you could pinpoint the parts of someone's brain that cause hubris. For another, there's the notion that after those brain chunks were removed for a long time and someone suffered from fairly major brain damage, replacing them would cause the hubris to return. Wouldn't Walter's brain have rewired itself during the long period while he was missing those chunks? Or wouldn't he be using those chunks of brain matter to replace functions that were lost due to brain damage, and thus unable to use them for their original "causing hubris" function? I'm curious.

On Fringe, intelligence directly correlates to evil

In any case, in this episode, Walter needs Nina's help to get at William Bell's old storage unit for the next item on the scavenger hunt — and Walter winds up having a debate with Nina as to whether he's doomed to become an evil scientist again. Walter contends that Peter's love will keep him sane and Peter won't let him become that guy again. But Nina says she loved William Bell, and that didn't stop Bell from turning evil and destructive. Walter (showing some of that arrogance) claims that Bell never loved Nina, because Bell never loved anybody. But later, confronted with evidence that Bell did actually love Nina, Walter is even more scared that Peter's love won't be enough, and he will descend into ruthless mania. (Nobody raises the point that a super-genius with no ethical limits might be the perfect person to fight the Observers. This is wartime, and you don't always get to stay pure.)

In the end, Walter begs Nina to take out the brain slices again — he might lose some of his intellect, but it'll be worth it if he's a nicer person. We don't really get to see Nina's answer, but I'm guessing it's no. And so Walter is left surveying the pieces of his still-incomprehensible plan to defeat the Observers, and listening to the David Bowie record that William Bell had stolen from him, The Man Who Sold the World.

On Fringe, intelligence directly correlates to evil

Oh, and we learn some of why Walter was so pissed at William Bell back in "Letters of Transit" — Bell had offered to help fight the Observer invasion, but once the Observers were here, Bell double-crossed Walter and the others, in exchange for the Observers' favor. And later, when Bell met up with Walter and Peter, he probably turned them in, and that's when Walter ambered them all. Unfortunately, Walter's memories of all this are mixed up with Marathon Man.

I'm still enjoying the "Bishop family brain upgrades" saga — especially the stuff where Peter outthinks and generally out-Observers the Observers, leading to molten-face goodness. So far, I'm still not seeing why a bunch of Resistance fighters wouldn't want to implant the Observer tech in their heads, even if it killed them after a week or two. And I'm hopeful that the "Walter is turning back into a monster" storyline will lead to some actual monstery action.

On Fringe, intelligence directly correlates to evil

But this episode does seem to be suggesting that there is an implicit tradeoff between intelligence and morality — like when Walter keeps saying that he's willing to lose some intellect in order to regain a sense of decency. And meanwhile, the more Peter starts being able to think as fast and as brilliantly as the Observers, the less compassion he seems to have. I guess in one sense this is the age-old obsession with losing your humanity, and the boundary between humans and people who are more than human. But in the case of Walter, the "brain pieces" issue is increasingly about whether Walter can be trusted with full access to his faculties. Brainpower corrupts, and absolute brainpower corrupts absolutely.

In any case, while the Bishop men are each grappling with his own problematic brain power-up, there's nothing for Olivia, Astrid and Nina to do but sit on the sidelines and worry that the menfolk are getting too smart for everybody's good. We need some equal opportunity brain supercharging around here — time for Olivia to break out the cortexiphan?